I recently wrote at length about banned photography; how certain places, often religious sites here in Asia, ban photography outright, but also how that lends more of a mystique to certain places; today I crossed that line, by leaps and bounds.
I’m in Sri Lanka, more specifically on Nainativu, one of the Jaffna islands in the far north, one of the Tamil strongholds (in fact, yesterday I visited the childhood village of Vellupillai Prabhakaran), where the dominant religion is Hinduism.
It’s not a long way from Jaffna city, which isn’t exactly the centre of civilization (anymore). An hours worth of busdriving takes you from low lying city, dotted with clutches of palm trees, temples, churches, and ruins; (the civil war was fierce here), and out across causeways to white sandy islands, covered in palm trees, inhabited by countless cows, and dotted with outrageously multicoloured temples.
Out here, where government oversight seems too troublesome to bother with, where people just look after themselves, I found myself at noon in Kurikadduwan (I get to sleep in every day), staring at a jetty, a small wooden boat and a group of Tamils, in lifejackets, looking seasick before they had even climbed into the boat, rocking along on turquoise water under a clear blue sky as well as a scorching hot sun.
Reaching my destination after a short, but deafening half hour ride, I disembarked on a long, clean, and beautiful stone jetty, worthy of any rich mediterranean city.
Nainativu is notable (saying “famous” would be outrageous out here), for having a Buddhist and a Hindu point of pilgrimage both, this far to the north in Sri Lanka.
Unusually for me, I skipped an ice cream, and headed towards a cacophony (usually means the local Hindu temple is performing poya, offerings to a god, usually happens several times per day, to the sound of deafening bells in multitudes); what I found instead, was so much more.
Sri Lankan hindu temples are outrageously colorful, often adorned with figures from tales and legends, both friendly and scary. In front of the temple, dedicated to the naga goddes Meenakshi, a consort of Shiva, is a massive gopuram, sort of like a wedge with steps, pointy end up, also covered with figures, painted in bright colours and visible from far away.
Inside, the temple was crammed full of people, all in the midst of praying; while holy men were busy uncovering a large idol (which I assume was of Meenakshi), with wooden poles underneath for four bearers. Then, just as I had entered the temple and looked around, a priest used a conch as a horn, and blew a long, deep, and sombre note.
Drums started banging, wooden torches on fire were waved around, flowers petals were thrown in the air covering the idol; and then this whole ceremony turned into a procession, walking around the temple (they’re usually large and rectangular, with the main altar in the centre), praying loudly, beating the drums harder and harder.
Making full circle, through the throng of worshippers, women in saris, men topless, the idol was packed away, and powder was handed out to worshippers, standing in surprisingly orderly lines, to make bindis.
After the ceremony was over, everybody were handed banana leaves, after which priests came around, ladling a thick goopy rice concoction. At which point, the celebration turned into a feast; hundreds of merry people, on a small strip of of sandy island, at the far edge of the country, trying to hear each other over children playing, roaring laughter, and teenagers trying to be somewhere between coy, and the party centre of the island.